Why Low Pay is a Racial Justice Issue

TELCO Living Wage March


October marks Black History month, an important moment in the year to recognise and celebrate the significant contributions black people have made to society in the UK, but also a chance to take stock and acknowledge how much further we still need to go to tackle racial injustice.

The ongoing cost of living crisis means those in insecure and low-paid jobs are struggling more than ever before. However, it is minority ethnic workers who are disproportionately paid the lowest wages in the UK who are being hit the hardest. Furthermore, with racial bias affecting hiring decisions, promotion opportunities and pay disparity and with Black people still being paid less than their white counterparts for comparable work, it’s clear that racial justice cannot be achieved without economic justice.

Throughout history Black people have been at the forefront of social justice movements in the UK, fighting oppression and paving the way for change. In 2001 the Living Wage campaign was established by low paid workers, largely from racialised communities, who were juggling multiple jobs on low pay and struggling to get by. The movement included leaders such as Abdul Durrant, the Black British Muslim man who worked nights as a cleaner on minimum wage at a well-known bank’s headquarters who took on the Chairman of the company and successfully convinced them to pay a Living Wage to all their staff.

Despite the huge achievements of the campaign for a real Living Wage, a movement that’s delivered over £2 billion pounds back into the pockets of low-paid workers since it began, discrimination and structural racism continue to pose significant barriers to economic parity for the Black community in the UK, a situation which is only worsening due to the increasing cost of living.  

Our own research has shown that Black workers face an increased risk of being paid less than the Living Wage in the UK. We found that Black workers were around 1.25 times more likely to be paid less than the real Living Wage than white workers. We also found that Black workers also face a higher risk of being on low pay than both Chinese workers, Indian workers and those from Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups. 

The dual barriers of structural racism and gender inequality also mean that Black Women in particular face a particularly high likelihood of being on low pay. Our research shows that Black Women are 1.2 times more likely to be on low pay than Black Men, 1.13 times more likely than white women and 1.7 times more likely than white men. Black women were also disproportionately overrepresented in jobs on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic such as social care workers – roles which requires a great deal of skill but have long been undervalued and underpaid. It’s not a coincidence that social care is one of the industries with the highest prevalence of people earning below a real Living Wage.

Behind these sobering statistics lies the stories of discrimination and struggle faced by thousands of Black workers in the UK who are struggling make ends meet. We know from speaking to workers up and down the country that being on low pay can also have a devastating and long-lasting impact on physical and mental health, leaving little to no time for families, hobbies or community as people juggle multiple jobs and face daily grinding worry about how to afford food, bills and essentials.

Low pay unfortunately isn’t the only issue facing Black workers either. Our research shows that Black workers are the most likely of all ethnic groups to be in insecure work with 28.4 per cent of Black workers in insecure work compared with 18.2 per cent of white workers. Being in insecure work itself can lead to a vicious cycle of increased costs, otherwise known as the ‘insecurity premium’, due to the increased travel and childcare costs often incurred from last minute notice of shifts. This unpredictability unsurprisingly makes finances extremely difficult to predict and manage and robs people of the ability to plan or save for the future.

However, it’s important to note that it’s not just pay that contributes to Black workers being disproportionately affected by in work poverty. Compounding all of these findings is the underlying issue of structural racism which sees Black people being deprived of the same career opportunities as white colleagues. Worrying findings from our polling of over 2,000 minority ethnic workers found that over half reported experiencing discrimination at work, over a third had been passed up for promotion due to their ethnicity, and a further 29% had experienced being refused a job due to their ethnicity.

While we acknowledge that pay alone cannot fix the deep structural racism that still exists, we believe that our work of advocating for employers to adopt a real Living Wage and secure hours for their staff are vital first steps in helping to address some of the injustices faced by Black people in the UK today.

At the Living Wage Foundation, we know we cannot be an anti-poverty organisation without also taking actions towards becoming an anti-racist one. Neither Black History nor the subject of racial and economic justice should be confined to just one month and we intend to continue to use our voice year round to raise awareness of the urgent issues of racial pay disparity through our research and to be vocal in calling on employers to adopt a Living Wage as a first step towards effecting positive change and creating a more fair, just workplace.

You can find out more about the actions we’re taking towards becoming an anti-racist organisation here: Our Anti-Racism commitment | Living Wage Foundation.


A note on terminology

Where possible in our research we try to use individual categories of ethnic groups when describing how low pay impacts workers from different ethnicities. However, due to sample sizes this is not always possible, and a catch-all term may need to be used. We have used ‘Minority Ethnic’ and not ‘Ethnic Minority’ or ‘BAME’ in this instance as this is sometimes preferred over the term ‘ethnic minority’. The use of minority ethnic was proposed to help counter the use of the term ‘ethnic’ when referring to people who are not white British.

We are aware however of the problems inherent in using such a catch-all term and that by grouping all Minority Ethnic workers into a broader category this erases the nuances of individual minority ethnic groups and their experiences, for example how certain low paid ethnic groups face a particularly acute risk of being on low pay. We firmly believe in the importance of, and call for more disaggregated labour market data in the future, so ethnicity pay gap data can be more accurately analysed and reported on.